Indian Judge Prosecutes the Press in Global Courtroom: Choudhury

Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is based in New Delhi. His novel "Arzee the Dwarf" is published by New York Review Books. Follow him on Twitter at @Hashestweets.
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If you believe yourself interested in Indian affairs, and haven't heard of Justice Markandey Katju, this means that -- there is no charitable way of saying it -- there is something negligent or insincere about your commitment.

This is because, for at least three months now, the good justice, recently retired from the Supreme Court of India, has been trying to reach all Indians, and further, all those in touch with Indian opinion. He has been telling them what stage of history India has reached, what is wrong with the fourth estate, what the purpose of art is, how the ancients and the philosophers of the Enlightenment lived, what the guiding principles of the citizenry should be, and who the writers worth reading are. He has published heroically long essays in newspapers, prepared a lecture for every invitation to deliver one, and appeared repeatedly in television debates. Recently, he started his own blog, where he publishes tracts on the history of India, the country's languages, women's emancipation and the caste system. Last week, he debuted on Twitter, where his feed is accompanied by a photograph of him in his judicial robes. What explains this sudden, unstoppable eruption of this 65-year-old comet across the sky?

Early last October, Katju was appointed chairman of the Press Council of India, a quasi-judicial body that serves as a watchdog on the press and is by convention headed by a retired judge of the Supreme Court. The council attends to complaints against the press, but only has the powers to censure a periodical for journalistic misdemeanors, not to penalize.

Within a month of assuming office, though, Katju let it be known that he was going to interpret his responsibilities in the broadest possible way -- and that he was not simply going to wait for complaints to come in, but instead would treat his own views as actionable. In a piece published widely in Indian newspapers in November, he launched a long and stinging attack on what he saw as the decadence of the Indian media and its dereliction of journalistic ideals. Comparing the task of the Indian press with that played by the press in the European Enlightenment, he wrote:

To understand the role which the media should be playing in India we have to first understand the historical context. India is presently passing through a transitional period in its history: a transition from a feudal agricultural society to a modern industrial society.

This is a very painful and agonising period. The old feudal society is being uprooted and torn apart; but the new, modern, industrial society has not yet been entirely established. Old values are crumbling, everything is in turmoil. Recollect Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “Fair is foul and foul is fair” [...]

It is the duty of all patriotic people, including the media, to help our society get over this transition period quickly and with less pain. The media has a very important role to play in this transition period, as it deals with ideas, not commodities. So by its very nature the media cannot be like an ordinary business.

In the Age of Enlightenment in Europe the print media represented the voice of reason. Voltaire attacked religious bigotry and superstitions, and Rousseau attacked feudal despotism. Diderot said that “Man will be free when the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest”. Thomas Paine proclaimed the Rights of Man [...]

In my opinion the Indian media should be playing a role similar to the progressive role played by the media in Europe during the transitional period in Europe. [...] This it can do by attacking backward, feudal ideas and practices e.g. casteism, communalism and superstitions, and promoting modern scientific and rational ideas. But is it doing so? [...]

The media often diverts the attention of the people from the real issues to non issues. The real issues in India are socio-economic, the terrible poverty in which 80% of our people are living, the massive unemployment, the price rise, lack of medical care, education, and backward social practices like honour killing and caste oppression and religious fundamentalism etc. Instead of devoting most of its coverage to these issues the media focuses on non issues like film stars and their lives, fashion parades, pop music, disco dancing, astrology, cricket, reality shows, etc. [...]

It is true that the intellectual level of the vast majority of Indians is very low, they are steeped in casteism, communalism, and superstitions. The question, however, is whether the media should try to lift up the intellectual level of our people by propagating rational and scientific ideas, or whether it should go down to that low level and seek to perpetuate it? [...]

To sum up: The Indian media must now introspect and develop a sense of responsibility and maturity. That does not mean that it cannot be reformed. My belief is that 80 per cent people who are doing wrong things can be made good people by patient persuasion, pointing out their errors, and gently leading them to the honourable path which the print media in Europe in the Age of Enlightenment was following.

There's much to admire about this argument and its wide-angle view of the task of journalism, even if any historian would find impossibly naive Katju's views about "the honourable path which the print media in Europe in the Age of Enlightenment was following," and any journalist would bristle at the patronizing language of "80 per cent people who are doing wrong things can be made good people by patient persuasion." The essay created a stir both among the public and journalists, especially since Katju declared at the same time, in a television interview with Karan Thapar, that he believed the majority of journalists to be of a very poor intellectual level.

Often, failure undoes a man; in India, though, success frequently has the same effect. Katju has thrown himself enthusiastically yet peevishly into every debate on which he possesses an opinion, as if in love with the sound of his own voice and his new public profile. His remarks appear almost daily in the Indian press, which -- like any other press -- loves a colorful quote. What began as an intellectually coherent argument has now become a global diatribe, as if the world were not much more than an especially large courtroom to be preached to and instructed. The thoughts that now emerge from Justice Katju (as he likes to call himself, despite his retirement) aren't always well-judged or welcome. Indeed, their sententiousness, verbosity, and pedantry -- consider the parenthetical at the end of this citation, "Really, the Lady doth protest too much! (Shakespeare: Hamlet)" -- invite more derision than respect.

Responding, for instance, to criticisms from newspaper editors who disputed his demand for greater powers, the good justice revealed a special password to the door of his approbation:

I may also mention that before my interview with [the journalist] Mr. Karan Thapar I sat for about 10 minutes in his office having a cup of coffee with him. At that time I mentioned the name of Emile Zola to him, and he immediately said ‘J’ Accuse’. That one word made him go up high in my esteem. I earlier did not have a very high opinion of him, but that single word completely changed my opinion, and I realized I was in the presence of a highly educated man.

Did it now? There is rich humor to be found in that "At that time I mentioned the name of Zola...", as if no period of 10 minutes ever passes in Katju's life without him thinking of the French novelist. And just as amusing is the mingled candor and pompousness of, "I earlier did not have a very high opinion of him..."

After the fracas over the non-appearance of Salman Rushdie at the recent Jaipur Literary Festival, Katju turned up again to pronounce on the matter ("I am submitting five points for consideration on the topic.") The piece is worth reading, if only for an insight into the unconscious egotism of a certain kind of Indian intellectual (almost always male). Katju mixes up the issue of individual liberty with that of a writer's quality, and further, offers up his own puzzlement before Rushdie's texts as definitive evidence of their general unreadability. Self-published on his website, the piece is an illustration of why every writer needs an editor -- or conversely, how the absence of an editor reveals a writer in his truest colors.

Some people describe Rushdie as a great writer because he has won the Booker Prize. In this connection, I wish to say that Literature Prizes are often a mystery. To give an example, out of the approximately 100 Nobel Prizes given for Literature till today, nobody even remembers the names of 80 or more winners, whereas many great writers were not given the prize. So winning the Booker Prize to my mind proves little. ‘Midnight’s Children’, for which Rushdie got the Booker Prize, is almost unreadable. It is difficult to understand what Rushdie is driving at. So the new criterion for good literature is that it should be unreadable!

In that these perorations are shoved down the throats of Indian readers only because of Katju's position as chairman of the Press Council, they point to nothing so much as a gross misuse by the justice of his powers, exactly the sin of which he accuses the Indian media. In a piece on the website of the media watchdog The Hoot, Archana Venkat spelled out the criticisms to be made of Katju:

Why is the media playing safe with Justice Katju?

Since his appointment in October last, his views on topics outside the PCI’s jurisdiction have been covered. These include views on democracy, the abuse of Bharat Ratna award, filtering content on social media sites, self-regulation, discrimination against Muslims, and the lack of scientific methods of investigation by the police. And of course, the numerous references he has made for TV and online news channels to be brought under the ambit of the PCI.

I do not recollect any other PCI chief (or the PCI) being given such coverage even while discussing relevant issues that were within the PCI’s jurisdiction. [...] Given the emails Mr. Katju has been sending the media, several a week, he seems to have a greater penchant for publicity than past chairmen of the Press Council.

The PCI is an autonomous body that seeks government aid on a need-basis, and Mr. Katju as its representative should be treated with the same amount of scrutiny as any government representative/ industry body representative. Instead, his views have been reproduced in the media verbatim with little or no alternative perspective featured in those stories. Most stories featuring him are lead stories, the bulk of them carrying his interview or a report that conveniently omits any other perspective.

An even more entertaining perspective on the retired judge's diagnoses and hypotheses was offered by Deepanjana Pal in the Sunday Guardian, in a piece called "Justice Katju, The Performance Artist":

I've read Katju's comments about India's "so-called educated Indians" who suffer from a "colonial inferiority complex" about 10 times now, and with every reading I'm convinced that Markandey Katju is not, as they used to say in the '90s, for real. He's a performance art project. Trust me. I'm an art critic. I've seen this sort of hoodwinking of the public before. Tejal Shah looked remarkably masculine when she pretended to be a young man performing a morning shave in a video work. Nikhil Chopra has convinced people in a number of cities around the world that he is an aristocratic woman in an elaborate Elizabethan gown. He even shaved off his eyebrows to perfect the illusion. Perhaps the most popular of contemporary performance artists is actor Sasha Baron Cohen, who transformed himself into a Kazakh man called Borat and goaded the government of Kazakhstan into placing an advertisement in The New York Times that explained Borat was not really representative of the nation. Placed alongside such examples, Katju's attacks against India's literati finally make sense.

There's such delicious irony in Katju accusing Rushdie fans of suffering from a colonial hangover, given Rushdie is one of the first writers to gleefully Indianise English. [...] Both English and literature have evolved beyond the nineteenth-century novel, but not for Markandey Katju. His notion of good writing is fixed in a colonial mould. Katju is unable to see how postcolonial writers have transformed English from a foreign language into one that Katju himself uses to be understood across the linguistic variety that is India. In the twentieth century, English became a bona fide Indian language. It may have been introduced to us by colonisers but it was manipulated into a local product. It's thanks to authors like Rushdie that English has been forced to expand and accommodate sounds, words and stories from worlds that Dickens, Shaw and Tolstoy rarely acknowledged in their writing.

The whole point of performance art is to provoke thought, and to that end, Katju, with his recent ridiculous statements, has been reasonably successful. Of course the trouble is that it now falls upon the rest of us to ensure that these antics aren't what end up defining contemporary India.

Chairman of the Press Council in October, "performance art project" by February -- the travails of Katju on his campaign of universal reform seem just as extreme as those being suffered by India in this "very painful and agonising period."

We may end in a manner that would find favor with Justice Katju, by quoting a canonical writer from anywhere between the sixteenth and the mid-nineteeth centuries: "He draweth out the thread of his verbosity finer than the staple of his argument." (Shakespeare, "Love's Labor's Lost.")

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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Chandrahas Choudhury at

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